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Sacred and Profane

Émile Durkheim

Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) was the founder of academic sociology in France and a thinker whose contribution to the social sciences, especially sociology and anthropology, continues to be fundamental. Born into a family of rabbis in Lorraine, he studied at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where his fellow students included the future philosopher Henri Bergson and Jean Jaurès, who was to become the leader of the Socialist Party. Philosophy was (and remains) a central focus of the humanities in France; Durkheim's first concern was to establish sociology as a legitimate branch. Consequently, his doctoral thesis and first major work, The Division of Labor in Society, published in 1893, sought to establish a "science of ethics."

The idea of looking for morality in the division of labor was startling, especially in light of the Marxist convictions of Durkheim's socialist friends. With equal daring, Durkheim suggested that such moral principles were reflected in the different types of law, repressive (criminal) and restitutive (civil). Repressive law rested on shared social understandings of "crime" morality, a domain Durkheim labeled the "conscience collective," which can be translated either as "collective consciousness" or "collective conscience." The moral underpinnings of such understandings amounted to "mechanical solidarity," the recognition of essential likeness between fellow members of a society. The increasing scope of the division of labor gave rise to a higher form of "organic" solidarity, reflecting complementarity rather than likeness. Ideally, organic solidarity was expressed by restitutive law stipulating reciprocal rights and obligations and redressing imbalances rather than punishing crimes. Durkheim was acutely aware of the gap between law and justice in modern society, a gap that he named "anomie," the absence of rules or norms. In his view, the economic aspects of the division of labor had temporarily outpaced the development of law and morality.

Two years later, in 1895, he published The Rules of Sociological Method, in which he insisted that "social facts," "ways of acting, thinking, and feeling, external to the individuals, and endowed with a power of coercion, by which they control him" (p. 3), could be explained only in social terms and were not reducible to biological or psychological explanations. In 1897 he published Suicide as a dramatic demonstration of the power of his methods; after all, the decision to take one's own life seemed a matter of individual psychology. However, he persuasively argued that psychological, biological, or climactic theories could not explain differences in suicide rates. For example, Protestants were more suicide-prone than Catholics, recently widowed men more so than women; suicide rates climbed during economic depressions and dropped in periods of revolutionary upheaval. Different types of suicide could be classified with respect to two axes: one in terms of the individual's commitment to social norms and the other in terms of the extent to which such norms were available to guide the individual in particular situations.

In 1896 Durkheim founded a journal, the Année Sociologique, which served as a forum not only for his own ideas but also for those of a growing number of brilliant pupils, including his nephew, Marcel Mauss. In 1912 he published his last book, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life; in it, he used Australian totemism as his central case on the grounds that native Australians were the simplest society known to humanity and that their religion was consequently free from confusing accretions. In stark contrast to his predecessors, nineteenth-century theorists of social evolution such as E. B. Tylor, Lewis Henry Morgan, and James Frazer, Durkheim did not use the Australians to demonstrate how far European society had evolved but rather as a means of uncovering universal features of religion and society that we share with them.

As a native of Lorraine, which was annexed by Germany in 1871, Durkheim enthusiastically supported the cause of France in World War I, with tragic consequences. His only son and most of his students died at the front, and he died a broken man in 1917.

Additional topics

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